Every New Year brings historical milestones and in the first of a “Down Memory Lane” series we look back 50 years to the NCU Challenge Cup Final. It was the inaugural limited overs final, and a memorable year for the Downpatrick Club.
The final featured some of the finest players in NCU cricket, and two teams at their peak of form in Downpatrick and Lisburn. The Wallace Park Club were the NCU Senior Cup experts during this era, but they met their match in the 1966 final thanks to the all-round talents of the County Down team.
Many people believed Downpatrick’s name was already written on the trophy long before a ball was bowled at Ormeau on Friday 5 August. On their path to the final they won three tight matches by narrow margins defending low totals. Their team was marshalled by the inimitable Bob Law, one of the great servants of both club and union over several decades. Bob was also wicket-keeper, but his place on the team was down to his leadership, and his ability to get the best out of his players.
In 1966 he had plenty of talent to work with.
At the time Downpatrick had a fine pace attack in Noel Ferguson, George Lennon and Roy Briggs, while their batting was built around Ferguson and the two Linehan brothers, Alfie and Hugh. But it would be unfair to cast the other players in simple supporting roles, as every member of this team made telling contributions during this memorable season.
The team also included the McCammond brothers, Harry and Ken, the former to distinguish himself later as a fine umpire. It also had the mercurial Derek McCann at the start of a colourful career that was littered with more success in later years, and the often-unsung hero in batsman Alastair Fitzimmons. Add golfing all-rounder Rodney Hutton, and Downpatrick could parade a team to match any other in the union.
Lisburn were the seasoned ‘pros’ of the day, captained by Cecil Walker, one of Irish cricket’s finest ambassadors. Although missing Ray Hunter and David Partridge, they fielded the McCoy brothers Tom and Billy, outstanding sporting all-rounder Herbie Martin, and the emerging Dermott Monteith, Lawrence Hunter, Michael Bowden and Ian McBride.
But this was to be Downpatrick’s finest hour, and a huge boost for the club that was to emerge as one of the most progressive a decade later when Bob Law took over the administrative reins. On Cup Final morning the chirpy Bob called correctly at the toss, and had no hesitation in batting. The Downpatrick batsmen scored a respectable 186-9, but it was their bowlers who turned the match in their favour when they dismissed Lisburn for 97 in the afternoon. Briggs and Ferguson took four wickets each, and when Downpatrick added another 189 in their 2nd Innings, the lead of 278 was well beyond Walker’s troops. Indeed, the lead could have been more as Alfie Linehan (42) and Hutton (47) looked in complete control at one stage, but a fine bowling performance from Hunter (8-76) kept them in with an outside chance.
The fourth innings produced another triumph for the Downpatrick seam bowlers. After Briggs and Lennon had pierced open the early reply, the great ‘Fergie’ ripped through the middle order with five wickets, despite a valiant effort from Bowden (40). The scenes at the end typified the spirit at the club at the time. The last wicket had barely fallen before the jubilant Downpatrick supporters invaded the pitch, and proudly carried their victorious captain shoulder-high off the pitch. Bob may have failed to score with the bat in his two innings, but his leadership was impeccable, and there was no more popular person at Ormeau when he delivered his victor’s speech.
Bob was also a very capable Chairman of the NCU (1982-3), following in the footsteps of the legendary Dr. Billy Ritchie (1968-70). Alfie Linehan was later to be Chairman and President of the NCU, Ireland captain, and President of the Irish Cricket Union. All three made huge contributions to both club and union over 40 years. They were the visionaries that made Downpatrick Cricket club one of the most progressive clubs in Ireland, and the Meadow at Strangford Road, one of the finest grounds.
It all started 50 years ago with that memorable Senior Cup win at Ormeau.